In March 1996, U.S. President Bill Clinton ordered two aircraft carrier battle groups into waters off Taiwan's southern coast.

Prompted by Chinese threats against Taiwan before its first presidential election, Clinton's show of force insured that the poll took place as planned.

It also infuriated Beijing, which regarded Taiwan then much as today as a renegade province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

In addition to guaranteeing Taiwan's right of self-determination, U.S. actions marked a shift in relations with the island from a strategic alliance with the brutally autocratic Kuomintang (KMT) that ran Taiwan after 1949, to an ideological one as the onetime police state evolved into a successful liberal democracy.

With another key election approaching on Jan. 11, some wonder if Taiwan's relationship with the United States may be returning to something once again more strategic than fraternal.

The context for this change is China-U.S. tensions as Beijing asserts itself to a degree it sees as commensurate with its development, something Washington regards as threatening after decades of openhanded engagement that policymakers assumed would produce liberalization there too.

The view that rivalry between China and the United States could affect Taiwan is well articulated in a recent essay by Richard Bush, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who warns that as Beijing turns from "persuasion to coercion" in cross-strait dealings, current U.S. President Donald Trump's increasing support for Taiwan could draw it "into U.S.-China strategic competition beyond what is wise or necessary."

Charles Chen, former KMT presidential spokesman in the Ma Ying-jeou administration, calls the risk for Taiwan a potential "proxy war," a term that evokes past conflicts involving the United States, notably the war in Vietnam.

Most say the comparison exaggerates the danger posed by U.S. involvement, and coupled with Chen's ties to the KMT, Taiwan's China-friendly main opposition party, which is desperately seeking wedge issues in the run-up to January, make the notion easy to dismiss.

Certainly incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen's independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party is pleased with the increase in direct U.S. support, along with numerous Congressional bills and resolutions criticizing Chinese repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Yet neither Chen nor Bush propose anything not suggested in various concerns raised since 2016 when Trump was elected to office promising to confront China.

Many speculate that in trade talks Taiwan is merely a bargaining chip for U.S. negotiators, a suspicion reinforced by Trump's October announcement that he would pull troops out of Syria, thus abandoning the Kurds, a longtime ally in the fight against Islamic State.

Arms sales have also raised doubts about American motives.

For decades U.S. administrations refused to supply advanced weapons to Taiwan's military, arguing that expensive systems like the F-16V fighter jet were of little value because China could easily take out the infrastructure necessary to fly them.

In August, however, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of 66 F-16Vs to Taiwan, the first of which are estimated to arrive in 2023.

Aside from debates about their usefulness, arms sales are a high-profile reminder to Beijing that for all of its newfound power the United States is "still influential in the region," said Tsai Chung-min, professor of political science at Taiwan's National Chengchi University.

Such reminders can descend to outright taunts, like last year when the new American Institute in Taiwan opened bearing the insignia designating U.S. embassies, inferring diplomatic recognition that Beijing would find intolerable were it official.

While China regularly protests what it sees as meddling in its internal affairs, it is difficult to say how much is retaliation for U.S. actions because Beijing already exerts significant pressure on Taiwan.

Since Tsai came to office in 2016, China has suspended official contacts, limited the number of Chinese tourists allowed to visit, poached diplomatic allies and increased military patrols around the island.

It has also become adept at "sharp-power" tactics, including media manipulation, co-opting older governmental and business elites while suppressing new ones, illicitly financing pro-China candidates and espionage.

In November, a self-described Chinese spy claimed to have funneled Chinese money into the 2018 Kaohsiung mayoral campaign of Han Kuo-yu, the KMT long shot who surprised everyone by winning the contest only to be drafted soon after to run as the party's candidate for president.

Han denies taking Chinese money, but true or not, such allegations undermine confidence in the democratic process, producing the kind of partisan dysfunction that Ryan Hass, another Brookings Institution fellow, recently said would "poison (the) U.S.-Taiwan relationship."

Taking issue with the idea of a proxy war on the island, J. Michael Cole, senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute, argues that Taiwan is not a pawn, but that "its government and the voting public, not to mention civil society" are free to choose for itself the best path.

Yet warnings like Hass's are a reminder that democratic agency is fragile, and that subjected to external pressures it can become polarized as political parties indeed take up proxy positions.

Currently struggling in the polls, the KMT understandably seeks to diminish the advantage the DPP derives from its cozy relations with the United States.

To this end, Chen's talk of a proxy war only raised the stakes in following his one-time boss, former president Ma, who dismissed Taiwan-U.S. relations under Tsai as "friendly but inconsequential."

But in raising these stakes, such talk may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Conversely, pursuing closer U.S. ties is not a DPP election ploy.

Opinion polls show support for unification remains low despite China's efforts, increasing the likelihood of intimidation, as Bush contends, and to counter this, advanced fighters are necessary.

It is also the case that, strategic interests notwithstanding, fraternity persists in U.S. policy toward Taiwan, and not just in security matters.

The AIT sponsors numerous local initiatives, such as the Global Cooperation and Training Framework, a platform for sharing Taiwanese expertise beyond limits set by China, which blocks Taiwan membership in various international organizations.

Analysts agree that Taiwan resists unification not because of U.S. meddling, but because Beijing refuses to adapt policies to the island's political realities.